Reporter’s Notebook From The Congo

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NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and NPR producer Jonathan Blakley discuss their recent reporting series about the Congo River. Quist-Arcton also discusses the recent United Nations investigation into whether Rwanda's military and its allies committed crimes in several refugee camps in the Congo in the 1990's. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame says he will withdraw the country’s UN peacekeeping forces if the UN publishes the investigation results, accusing the Rwanda military of genocide in the Congo.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, Mexico's drug trafficking wars have claimed tens of thousands of lives. And with the recent massacre of 72 migrants from south of Mexico's borders, the violence is far from over. We'll talk about the dangerous but intricately organized Mexican drug cartels.

But first, to one of the largest countries in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the land of the mighty Congo River, which runs 3,000 miles and has fascinated explorers and kings alike. It has played a vital role, of course, in the lives of the Congolese.

NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton took a long trip down the Congo River, providing rare insight into the relationship between the river and the people. She was joined on the trip by producer Jonathan Blakley, a first timer to that part of the world. Both of them join us now. Ofeibea from her office in Dakar, Senegal and Jonathan from Baghdad, where he is on assignment. Hello to both of you.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings.

JONATHAN BLAKLEY: Hi, Tony. Hi, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Hi.

COX: We cannot wait to hear more about this fascinating and remarkable trip that you took down the Congo. But before we get to that, Ofeibea, I want to spend a couple of moments on a very significant piece of news coming out of the region, which is related to Congo's troubled history of civil war and violence and a U.N. report about reprisal killings after the 1994 genocide. What's the latest there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Now, the report is about what happened in Congo, but it really reflects on the surface, the army of Rwanda next door. As you know, the genocide in 1994 mainly Tutsi, 800,000 Tutsis killed there, and moderate Hutus. Now, what this leaked U.N. report - it has not been formally published yet, but what it is saying is that two years after, 1996 to 1997, these same Rwandan forces that were fighting the genocide across the border crossed into eastern Congo, and apparently killed tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees and Congolese Hutu.

Now, Rwanda is saying this report is rubbish. It's scurrilous and it is actually threatening to pull out its peacekeeping forces from all U.N. operations. And it is actually commanding the joint U.N. African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, Sudan. So it's really very serious.

COX: Is the saber rattling by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, or is he serious?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think it's a bit of both. Up till now, really, Paul Kagame has had the lever on everyone because the international response to the genocide in Rwanda was so lackluster, in fact, virtually nonexistent, he has had a lever on the United Nations, on Washington, which failed to respond under President Clinton, on Britain, which failed to respond. In fact, all Western nations who Kagame blamed for having done nothing during the genocide.

Now his government, his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo is saying, you know, it's absolutely ludicrous and it's hypocritical and double standards of the U.N. to turn around and say that the same force that it allowed to command its peacekeeping operations in Darfur is the force that is accusing of genocide. The G word has been used, of atrocities in Congo and that this is malicious.

COX: We'll keep our eyes on that. Thank you very much, Ofeibea.

So now let's move on to this trip that you made - this fabulous trip -with producer Jonathan Blakley. An exploration of the beauty and the people along the Congo River.

(Soundbite of river)

COX: You travelled 500 miles down the river on a barge. Here is a moment when you boarded the vessel.

QUIST-ARCTON: Suddenly this boat that we're taking is just chock-a-block. When I last visited it, there were, what, maybe a couple a dozen of people on board and some goats. Now it looks as if there are 300 plus people on board and the vessel has considerably sunk. I hope we're within legal limit for how many people are allowed on board.

(unintelligible), bonjour. Good morning, Flor(ph), how are you?

FLOR: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: (Foreign language spoken)

FLOR: (Foreign language spoken)

COX: I'm going to ask you about the boat in just a moment, but what makes the Congo River such a fascinating body of water?

QUIST-ARCTON: Tony, let me first tell you that it ain't a boat. It was not a boat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Okay.

QUIST-ARCTON: It was a barge. Two 50-foot barges latched together and pushed by a tugboat, not a boat in the conventional sense of the word at all.

But, yeah, talking about the Congo River, I mean, it's quite something. It's massive. As you said, 3,000-odd miles. Some of it navigable, most of it navigable, some of it not navigable. And it is the lifeline of the Congo.

It runs through the heart of the country. It takes people into the interior, the remote hinterland where, you know, we were passing villages that were literally made up of one or two mud huts, slightly bigger villages, towns. But they all relied on the river. As one Congolese balladeer sang, this river is our main boulevard. It is the artery of Congo.

COX: Jonathan Blakley, let me bring you into the conversation. I'm curious to hear from you what your thoughts were when you first, A, saw the Congo River itself and all its majesty; and, B, when you saw that barge that was going to be your home for a while.

BLAKLEY: Yeah. You look at that barge, you say, you mean that one right there, the one with all the people on it? I don't think there's any room for us. But we did figure out a way to get on that barge, thanks to our guide and journalist and interpreter, Emery Makumeno. And he wheeled and dealed and got us onto that barge.

But I'm just now getting to absorb how magnificent and what a wonderful and amazing journey I took with Ofeibea. I mean, it was so overwhelming. There's so much coming at you, not just the people, but the beauty of that part of the world. That part of the world that, you know, most people would never get to see their own eyes. I got to see 500 miles of it on that river.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox and you're listening to tell me more from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about Africa's third largest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and her recent trip to the mighty Congo River, along with NPR producer Jonathan Blakley.

Before I ask you the next question, Ofeibea, about it, let's listen to another part of your report about some of the food on the barge.

QUIST-ARCTON: I see a monkey.

Mr. MARTO KAPANGA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Marto Kapanga is clutching a smoked monkey, considered a mouthwatering delicacy in many parts of Congo, while he points to a range of other live animals on board. Some are pets, others will end up in cooking pots. Kapanga has invited us to tuck into what he promises will be a delicious, smoked monkey stew.

COX: I don't know if you know this, Ofeibea, or not, but there was quite a reaction to that part of your report on the NPR website, people talking about, you know, eating monkeys. And some had, well, positive things to say and some had some more curious kinds of things to say. Tell us more about that experience.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, yes, we have to, you know, there are some things Americans eat that people in the rest of the world also look askance at. But I have to say that monkeys and other bush meat, as they're called, are delicacies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the Congolese enjoy it.

It's true that in the West there's much more education about conservation, about animals. But we're not talking about the great apes here. We're not talking about our brothers and sisters, the baboons and so on. We're talking about monkey meat and they do eat it. And what's more, they eat it and enjoy it. So I think some people have been a bit offended. They felt that, you know, perhaps I should have said to the Congolese, no, you should think about conservation.

But people are surviving in Congo. You know, they don't sometimes have the option and they don't have the sort of money in the West to decide whether or not on what they're going to eat fresh fish from the Congo River was what they mostly ate, but they also bought smoked fish, salted fish and smoked monkey because they could preserve that and eat it on the way. And I wasn't there to judge. I was there to observe with Jonathan, life on the Congo River and that's what we observed.

COX: So, Jonathan, what did it taste like? Chicken?

BLAKLEY: I respectfully declined.

COX: Oh, you didn't try it, huh? You were...

BLAKLEY: No. No. It was just the camera that got close to that monkey, not my palate.

COX: Not - you weren't quite ready for that.

BLAKLEY: No, not at all.

COX: Let me ask the both of you to describe in more detail for us about the people on the barge. How many people were there and from your reports, I got the impression that it wasn't just a barge for transporting people from one place to another, but the barge had life of its own the barge. Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: Yeah, I'll take the first answer. Yes, a life of its own, a rhythm of its own. We went quite slowly. And people were quite frustrated on that barge. But we met everybody. We met a Judo instructor who was trying to get to Kinshasa because he had to take his Judo team. Was it to South Korea, Jonathan, something like that?

BLAKLEY: I believe it was South Korea, exactly.

QUIST-ARCTON: We had many, many traders. People who were trading...

BLAKLEY: The antique dealer.

QUIST-ARCTON: ...palm oil for cooking. We had people who were trading in all sorts. The boat was full. It was full of live animals. We had these head butting goats who weren't very (unintelligible) us. On our place on the deck, I mean there were lambs. There were chickens. Some...

BLAKLEY: (Unintelligible)

QUIST-ARCTON: Many were being taken down to the capital Kinshasa to be sold. So there was a lot of trade going on on the boat. And of course a lot of villages coming in their dugout canoes pulling and paddling these canoes, sliding up against the barge and then selling what we ate every day: plantains, cassava, fruit, the most delicious mangoes, papaya. And what else did we have, Jonathan? Oh, pineapples. I mean fresh fish.

BLAKLEY: Yeah, if you remember, Ofeibea, you cooked this - I call it Ofeibea's brew when I caught a bit of a cold. But all the material for that brew, the lemons and the honey, the only thing we brought tea, but everything that you could want for Ofeibea's brew, which did make me feel better, by the way, was available from these dugout canoes that as if on the cue in 7:00 in the morning, as we're steaming along down the Congo River. From the villages, these dugout canoes and people in them with all their goods just come straight forth and haggling time begins. It's fascinating.

COX: Let me ask you, Jonathan, because you are in Baghdad and the danger there is palpable. Did you have a sense of danger while you were on the barge going down the Congo River?

BLAKLEY: Well, you hear of barges in situations like these, not just in Central Africa, but other parts of Africa and other parts of the world that were overturned. So I was concerned about that, especially when you heard Ofeibea's report and there was at one point, you felt the barge kind of lunge downward. It's, like, okay, that's not good.

And then our first night we were introduced to the elements, the terrible rainstorm, which you don't want to be inside a boat like that with that type of rain. This was the first time I'd been in a boat with rain and the boat was really moving about. Well, we were saying there was one of two bad rainstorms.

But we had a wonderful captain who said, I think, Ofeibea, he could navigate the Congo River blindfolded or at night. They wouldn't let them go at night because - for safety reasons. And the fact that when you go down the river, there's a big problem with sand barges, and that's what usually causes these barges to overturn.

As a matter of fact, I think after we finished our reports and we were putting them together, a barge did overturn and some people did lose their lives on the Congo River.

COX: Well, you know, Ofeibea, you mentioned also that there was a threat from Congolese rebels. If you are on one of these barges and security personnel have been added to make things safer. Before I ask you a question, let's listen to one more clip from your series.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Another daily ritual: security and immigration checkpoints and even megaphone instructions. Security along the Congo River has been tightened in recent months because of unrest by rebels (unintelligible). To comply with the new regulations means jumping into a dugout canoe and getting to shore to have travel documents checked. Most times, it was just us, the journalists, singled out. But on a couple of occasions, all the passengers were ordered to leave the barge.

COX: Now, Jonathan says that he was a little concerned about that boat, but my question for you, Ofeibea, is whether or not there was more concern about the rebels and the potential for a rebel attack than the dangers of the barge itself.

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, that's what we were told, Tony. We were actually forbidden from going upriver because we had thought that maybe we'd go from Mbandaka up to Kisangani, where (unintelligible). We were told no because there had been some rebel activity. But, you know, once we were on the barge, I didn't feel at all unsafe. And I didn't think any rebels were going to sneak up and suddenly try and abduct us.

No, I was much, much more fascinated by the creativity, the ingenious creativity of the Congolese living on the barges or the latched together barges, on this huge barge, 300 plus of us with all these animals and living as if they were almost living on land, except that we were on water. It was literally a floating supermarket, a floating market, a floating village. People were carrying on very organized, doing their cooking, doing their washing, using the river for everything - for cooking, for drinking, for bathing.

The Congo River is second to none. It was absolutely extraordinary, Tony. And I advise everybody to take your courage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: ...need a little bit of courage.

COX: That should do it, huh?

QUIST-ARCTON: And travel down the Congo River. It was really an experience and discovery and adventure all the way.

COX: Our time has run out. This has been a fascinating story to hear about. Jonathan Blakley, I'm going to give you the last word because I understand that as an African-American, which you are, that you were seen on the trip as something other than that - do you know what I mean?

BLAKLEY: I do know what you mean, and I think that became quite apparent when I decided when we had one of our stops at one of the villages, I decided with among most people on the boat to take a bath in the Congo River. So me with my orange shorts and my two-toned sun-burnt skin, I kind of stood out from everyone. And I was called by kids, mundele, mundele, mundele. So it didn't take much to realize that they were calling me white man.

But it's funny because that's just at that time, Ofeibea, who was taking pictures, who came by on a canoe and said, you realize - is Obama black? And they said, yeah. Well, Jonathan's black, too. And they were just dumbfounded. They had no idea what to say.

COX: A remarkable story. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent joining us from Dakar, Senegal. Jonathan Blakley is an NPR producer joining us from Baghdad. To hear their five-part series on the Congo River and see pictures from this remarkable trip, just go to our Web site at npr.org. Ofeibea, Jonathan, good job, thank you very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

BLAKLEY: You're welcome.

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